Thursday, August 29, 2013

With usability, everyone wins

Having demonstrated a usability test in my last post, where do we go from here? I hope I"ve shown usability should not be just tacked onto a project. Usability needs to be part of the design of open source software, and addressed as a process. As open source software developers, we are generally very good at applying good software development practices to our work. Now we need to take the next step and bring usability into that practice.

Our next challenge in open source software is to find ways to incorporate usability into our development culture. This is a big step. Most open source programs are written by developers for other developers. Developing features takes priority, and we rarely look at how users will try to access that functionality.

In open source software, the community plays a strong role in testing new releases. Unfortunately, left on their own with no structure to usability testing, open source software testers will respond with simple bug reports: “This feature is confusing.” That's not helpful feedback. Or, usability bugs may not be afforded the same status as functionality bugs.

The approach to identify usability issues in open source software, therefore, needs to be more structured. Open source software developers can apply a variety of methods, although the ideal would be to conduct formal usability tests at every major release.

Usability testing for open source software projects doesn’t need to be performed in a lab; a project can find ways to “crowdsource” usability testing with the user community. For example, the open source web content management system Drupal streamed usability testers as they undertook a usability test. This allowed Drupal developers all over the world to observe the usability test without having to travel to a single location. When open source developers can watch testers experience problems with the software, they better understand the issues and how to address them.

Another simple method is usability testing by “flash mob.” Just intercept people in a public space and ask them to try out a few scenarios and share their experiences. If your test subject is willing to spare a few minutes, and with a “mob” of individual testers and evaluators, you can glean valuable information in a short amount of time. This idea of “flash mob” usability testing can be extended to other domains, too. If your open source software is web-based, you might conduct similar impromptu usability tests by intercepting website visitors.

You don't have to be an expert to apply usability tests in open source software. Anyone can do it. You only need to watch users try to use the software, and usability issues will immediately become obvious. As few as five testers will give you consistent information that you can use to make your open source software even easier to use. With good usability, everyone wins.

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